One of Rollins College’s class of 2022 valedictorians can’t speak. That didn’t stop her from using the tools available to share her voice with her classmates.
Using text-to-speech software, Elizabeth Bonker, who has non-speaking autism and types what she needs to communicate, stood behind the desk at the Winter Park campus on Monday to encourage others to use their voice when they go out into the world.
“My neuromotor issues also prevent me from tying my shoes or buttoning a shirt without help,” she said. “I typed this speech with one finger with a communication partner holding a keyboard. I am one of the lucky few non-speaking autistic people who was taught to type. This critical intervention unlocked my mind from its silent cage. to communicate and be educated like my hero Hellen Keller.
The 24-year-old majored in social innovation with a minor in English. Bonker shared farewell honors with four others and thanked them for letting her give the farewell speech, and thanked the 1885-founded institution of higher education for giving her an opportunity today .
“I want to publicly thank Rollins College for taking a chance, for caring about every student, for being a place where kindness lives,” she said. “Dear classmates, today we start together, but from here we will choose our own paths. For my part, I have a dream. Yes, just like Martin Luther King Jr. I have a dream: communication for all. There are 31 million non-speakers with autism worldwide who are locked in the silent cage. My life will be dedicated to relieving them of suffering in silence and giving them a voice to choose their own path.
To this end, she will continue to work for the association she founded, Communication 4 ALL. She has previously published a collection of poetry called “I Am in Here” and recently collaborated with musicians for an album of the same name.
She asked her classmates what their dreams were and challenged them to push forward with Rollins’ former student Fred Rogers’ quote: “Life is for service.”
“God gave you a voice,” she said. “Use it and know that the irony of a non-speaking autistic encouraging you to use your voice does not escape me, because if you can see the value in me, then you can see the value in everyone you you meet.”